China’s traditional medicine to use scientific help to expand market



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April 13, 2007  
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Xinhua – The Chinese government is to fund scientific research into traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) to improve standards and to study new applications in order to expand its appeal abroad as an effective alternative to Western remedies and chemicals.

In a development outline on TCM, jointly prepared by 16 ministries, the government said that in the next 13 years, it would concentrate scientific support for traditional medicine as it might become “the breakthrough of Chinese innovation on the world stage”.

“Science might solve the key problems of traditional medicine’s development in modern times, so as to complement the ways we view and treat diseases,” the outline said.

It also set a goal to help traditional healing methods and herbal medicines gain a footing on overseas “mainstream” health care markets by 2020.

The government also aims to launch international research programs to promote TCM and establish two influential traditional medicine research institutes and information exchange centers.

Over the past five years, the government has invested $740m yuan (US$92.5m) in TCM research and development.

The plan also said the central and local governments would increase funding for TCM scientific research and actively seek investment from domestic businesses and overseas sources.

It said government will also try to establish a better system of standards for TCM treatments, drug production, medical scientific research and market entry.

Long before the start of modern medical science, the Chinese had developed complex theories in treating illness. Folk doctors used simple tools such as acupuncture needles and concocted remedies from natural ingredients, such as wild plants and animal parts.

The first Chinese medical classic — The Yellow Emperor’s Canon of Medicine — dates back to between 403 BC and 221 BC. Ancient urn fragments suggest the Chinese might have a history of brewing herbs to treat diseases going back 8,000 years.

But TCM declined in the mid 19th Century due to the growing popularity of Western medicine. TCM was even officially banned for a time under the rule of the Kuomintang Party.

After the founding of the people’s republic, TCM was rehabilitated and developed along side Western medicine. About 3,000 hospitals in China provide TCM treatments to nearly 234 million patients each year.

Despite its popularity, TCM is not widely used in health care systems abroad and faces criticism at home. Among the accusations, critics say TCM‘s theories lack scientific evidence and its remedies are ineffective and, in some cases, unsafe.

A nationwide debate erupted over the survival of TCM last year after an on-line proposal by Zhang Gongyao, a professor with Central South University, that health authorities remove TCM practices from national health services.

The Ministry of Health has strongly opposed the proposal, saying, “TCM is an inseparable and important component of China’s health sector.” Many outraged opponents said Zhang’s ideas “ignored history and might kill off Chinese culture”.

Other health experts say TCM is and should be widely used in China’s public health care system as many low-income families cannot afford Western medicines. If developed well, TCM could even reverse the perception of the money-obsessed culture of health care caused by expensive Western treatments and chemical drugs, they said.

Speaking on TCM‘s shortcomings, Liu Gengtao, a research fellow with Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, said TCM practitioners could learn more about diagnosing illnesses using Western medical techniques.

He welcomed the government plan, saying it could prompt researchers to use science to interpret the values and unique theories of traditional medicine and speed up the development of marketable and effective herbal medicines by combining the best of Eastern and the Western practices.

“China will develop a number of new herbal medicines in the next 10 to 20 years,” Liu said.

“Unlike western medicine, which focuses solely on the disease, Chinese traditional remedy takes a holistic approach.” said Wang Jie, president of the Guanganmen Hospital.

He said the co-existence of TCM and Western medicine was unique to China’s health system, and by incorporating the two, China might invent an advanced system of medicine and take the global lead in medical science.

He thought TCM could have “more advantage” in treating chronic illnesses such as cancers, but said more research should be done to gain the scientific evidence.